Living longer instead of dying longer
I just spent almost 2 hours listening to Rich Roll’s fascinating interview with Valter Longo. They spoke mainly about diet, fasting and how to live a long and healthy life. The emphasis on “healthy” is very important here, since Valter jokingly calls himself a juvenologist, a scholar of what keeps us younger and healthier at high age. As opposed to a gerontologist, a scholar of the aging process and diseases of the elderly.
Valter grew up in Italy. When he was 5 years old, he was present in the room when his grandfather died, and this started a life-long fascination with the process of aging. Valter studied biochemistry and got his PhD for work on caloric restriction, antioxidant enzymes and anti-aging genes at UCLA. In 1997 he moved to USC where he did postdoc work on the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s Disease. Since then he is a professor of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute.
The way I see it, this man is undeniably qualified to talk about aging and longevity.
What follows are the notes that I made to myself from this conversation, and then decided to post here for everyone to read.
Gene mutation and manipulation
Early in his career Dr. Longo performed gene experiments on yeast, whose lives he was able to extend 10-fold. Other scientists were doing similar work with worms and flies. Valter then started studying mice. He discovered that decreasing the activity of the mTOR pathway led to longer life and lower probability of developing certain kinds of cancer. mTOR also seemed to be a contributor to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
So the question then became: what leads to increased mTOR activity and how to decrease it.
By combining a certain gene mutation with diet changes, Valter was able to double the life expectancy of his mice. He then studied a group of people living in Ecuador who lack the specific gene he was trying to suppress. These people had extremely low rates of diabetes and cancer. But they ate a terrible diet, and they were not living much longer than their neighbors. So the gene mutation was important, but a change in diet was also required if you wanted to prolong life expectancy significantly.
The blue zones of longevity
So if a certain gene mutation combined with a certain diet leads to a doubled life expectancy, what happens if we only apply the diet? And what is this miraculous diet anyway?
Now the conversation turned to the blue zones. In two previous podcast episodes (#139, #323) Rich spoke with Dan Buettner about five places in the world where people live healthy well above 100 yeas of age. Dan identified several factors that were most common among those geographically diverse places:
- Physical activity: on a regular basis, at moderate levels.
- Diet: moderate caloric intake, mostly plant-based diet, moderate alcohol intake.
- Mental factors: having a life purpose, stress reduction, engagement in spirituality, family and community.
Oh wow, those are the exact opposites of modern western culture!
Valter also has a lot of interest in the blue zones, but he focused mostly on the diet of the centenarians. He spent a lot of time on the Italian island of Sardinia, and was amazed by those 110+ year old people who were still able to move around and take care of most personal needs by themselves.
Macronutrients and health
Turning back to modern society, Valter’s view is that being vegan is great, if you can do it, and if you pay attention to your protein intake. In his view, a vegan diet plus fish is extremely healthy, much more practical and pretty much guarantees that people will stick to it. Rich pushed a bit on this idea, saying that he is purely plant-based, and his blood-work is fine and he’s never had any difficulty building lean muscle mass. Also that meat eaters are getting 2x–5x the recommended daily protein intake (which we’ll see below is not healthy).
Valter stuck to his recommendation of vegan diet plus fish 2–3 times a week. He even said that after age 65 the protein intake should be increased another 20% (by eating even more fish).
Around minute 40 of the interview, Rich asked about the connection between meat consumption and cancer. Valter answered that he as well as the World Health Organization [source needed], the National Cancer Institute [source needed], the USDA [source needed] and almost every other major association specializing in cancer “have recognized that red meat is a risk factor and certainly something that you want to avoid in high quantities.”
Walter’s research group as well as Harvard’s Institute of public health have done further research [source needed] showing that high protein intake from any meat, not just red meat, has detrimental health effects. Even a mixture of plant-based and animal-based protein in high quantities leads to increase in cancer rates.
On the topic of saturated fat, Dr. Longo answered that studies showing that saturated fat might be good for you (like the one in Time magazine) didn’t follow enough subjects for a long enough period of time. And indeed, he continued, people on a low-sugar high-saturated-fat diet may initially lose some weight, but on the whole, such people are more often overweight. They also develop metabolic diseases more often and die earlier.
Things are just opposite with unsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts, seeds). Most centenarians in the five blue zones have a diet high in unsaturated fats.
About carbohydrates, Valter said that while sugar and starch (bread, pasta and other processed foods) are bad for you, carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables are wonderful.
Finally: fasting and longevity
The last 45 minutes of the conversation were devoted to the main topic of caloric restriction and fasting.
The first thing that Dr. Longo said is that constant caloric restriction doesn’t work well. You get some positive effects, but also just as many negative ones. What you want instead is to alternate periods of normal eating with periods of caloric restriction and a specific diet.
Valter then described an experiment he performed with mice. Twice a month for 4 consecutive days the mice were fed a calorie-restricted low-protein, low-sugar, high carbohydrate, high unsaturated fat vegan diet. On the other days they ate a normal diet. The results were remarkable: the mice lived 11% longer, cancers and inflammatory diseases were reduced by almost 50% and the cognitive abilities were “much improved.” [source needed]
This experiment was then conducted on humans: 5 days on the above diet followed by 25 days of “normal eating”, repeated three times. A month after the last cycle the participants had lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, lower inflammation and lower IGF-1 (an amino acid highly correlated with aging, cancer and stroke). Three moths after the experiment the positive changes were still at 60%.
Dr. Longo calls the above “protocol” the fasting mimicking diet (FMD), because its effects are very similar to a water-only fast. But with FMD people do not have to stop eating completely for 5 days. So far about 30 000 people have been through the FMD with great success.
Why is Fasting Healthy?
On the cell level, when you fast a non-cancerous cell, “something” gets triggered that makes the cell stronger against disease and decline. Imagine an old wood-burning train which is running out of fuel. To reach the next station, the train engineer might start going through the train looking for things to burn. He will probably start by using already damaged benches, window frames, unneeded luggage, etc. But when the train reaches the station, all those burned materials will get replaced with new and better ones.
In mice studies Dr. Longo has shown that after a number of fasting cycles, any auto-immune cells were completely gone in 20% and drastically reduced in another 50% of the mice. After mice with diabetic pancreases went through several FMD cycles, their pancreases started producing insulin again. Such effects are likely also true in humans, and trials have already started.
Now Rich asked about the difference between FMD and a simple water fast. Valter explained a water fast is good for up to 5 days, but then you get into “a danger zone” if you are doing it without medical supervision. Also a long-term fast (30+ days) slows down your metabolism for months, so after the fast you’ll have to eat fewer calories. While FMD is a form periodic fasting, it provides people with small amounts of food so they don’t feel as hungry. Also the nut bars supply very specific nutritional components which activate desirable processes in the body.
Fasting and cancer
As we saw above, healthy cells go into a “protective mode” during fasting and rebuild themselves healthier than before when the fast is over. But cancer cells are “programmed” to thrive when they are fed a steady supply of sugar, protein and growth factors (like IGF-1).
For someone who has cancer, adding a period of fasting just before chemotherapy or radiation increases the efficiency of the therapy [source needed].
Dr.Longo’s specific suggestions
- Intermediate fasting is good, but keep it to 12 hours. Going up to 16 hours increases your chance of having gall stones and other gallbladder problems.
- If you are overweight, eat twice a day (plus maybe a small snack). If you have a normal weight, don’t eat more than 3 meals a day.
- Overweight people can do a 5-day fast once a month. As you move towards normal weight, decrease the frequency to once a quarter. Elite athletes would benefit from a fast about twice per year.
- Do not do fasting or FMD if you are pregnant, below BMI 18.5, if you are not healthy, or if you are taking metabolic drugs, especially insulin.
- Valter Longo has written a book called The Longevity Diet, which Rich called “groundbreaking.”
- If you want to learn more or purchase the meals for the FMD diet, go to the official MFD site. Note that Dr. Longo donates all profits to the Create Cures Foundation, which “promotes creative scientific and medical projects aimed at the rapid identification of low-cost, integrative therapies for the prevention and treatment of major diseases.”
BONUS: Daily Longevity Diet
The following bullet points are a summary of the information on the Create Cures webpage, which is also founded by Dr. Valter Longo:
- Eat plants: whole grains and high quantities of vegetables (tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, legumes, etc.). Consume 3 Tbsp of olive oil and 1 ounce of nuts per day. Eat 2–3 meals per week with high-quality fish.
- To prevent losing lean muscle mass, make sure to eat enough protein every day. Ideally 0.31 to 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Great sources of protein are beans, chickpeas, green peas, and other legumes.
- Minimize sugar and intake of saturated fat (mostly coming from meat and cheese).
- Make sure to consume foods with enough vitamins and minerals.
- If you are overweight, consume only two meals a day: breakfast and either lunch or dinner. Everyone else, eat three meals a day. Snacks, if at all, should be very small and low in sugar.
- Keep your meals to within a 12-hour period and eat nothing for the remaining 12 hours. Don’t eat anything within 3–4 hours of bedtime.